Sunday, 12 March 2017

Believing the Impossible

Lent 2 – Stoke Hammond – 12 March 2017

Readings Genesis 12

The call of Abram


The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

2 ‘I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.’

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. 

Reading Romans 4

Abraham justified by faith


What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’

4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. 5 However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.

13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’[c] He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

Gospel John 3

Jesus teaches Nicodemus


Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’

3 Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’

4 ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’

5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’

9 ‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked.

10 ‘You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 


In Genesis 12, Abram is in no doubt about what God said to him. It’s almost as if God was walking with him and speaking to him, just as God did to Adam in the garden of Eden.

In Romans 4, Abraham is made righteous through his faith, not by what good things he did. The promises given to him are seemingly impossible, yet Abraham believes and trusts God, who does not let him down.

In John 3, Nicodemus protests to Jesus at the impossibility of his promise. A well known religious leader, a member of the Sanhedrin, a man with a reputation to preserve, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, alone. He recognises no one could perform the signs that Jesus did, unless God were with him. This is the level of faith he showed—and it grew.

Nicodemus appears three times in John’s gospel, and nowhere else. After his clandestine visit, John describes how Nicodemus reminds the Sanhedrin that a man must be heard before judgement is passed (John 7:50). His third appearance was after the crucifixion, when Nicodemus provided 45kg of embalming spices to anoint Jesus’ body, and assisted Joseph of Arimathea in preparing for his burial.

But on the night of his first encounter with Nicodemus, what did Jesus mean by using the words “born again.” To us, the words are familiar. How many times have we been asked if we are born again? But to one hearing the words for the first time, what was Nicodemus to make of it?

The Greek word ανωθεν does not only mean “born again” but can also be translated “born from above.” Nicodemus clearly thought Jesus meant “born again.” Perhaps Jesus actually meant “born from above.” So Nicodemus was not being deliberately obtuse when he asked how one might physically be born again at his age.

In fact, theologians argued their cases by routinely trying to discover the impossible and eliminate it, as a means of arriving at what they believed to be the truth. After all, there was nothing to prefer one meaning over the other.

Whatever Jesus intended, he proceeded to propose the impossibility of anyone seeing the Kingdom of Heaven unless they had been reborn.

Just like Abram, Nicodemus is being asked to believe the impossible. In verse 7, Jesus tells him he should not be surprised at what he is asked to believe. That’s all very well, but Nicodemus still does not know what Jesus means.

In order to elucidate, Jesus treats Nicodemus to a ‘play on words.’ He says there are two types of birth: one “of the flesh” and one “of the spirit.” In Greek, the word πνευμα means both “spirit” and “wind”.

The spirit is like the wind, Jesus says. You can feel the wind on your skin, but not see it. You can hear the wind, but not know where it is coming from, or where it is going. So it is with the Spirit, and everyone born of the Spirit.

Lifted up
Nicodemus still fails to understand. Jesus continues to play. He refers to the venomous snakes that plagued Israel in the Sinai (Numbers 21). As an antidote, Moses was told to cast a bronze replica of a snake and mount it on a pole. Everyone who had been bitten could look at the bronze snake lifted high and be cured.

The word “pole” is the same word as “sign” in Greek. Nicodemus had started his discussion by praising the “signs” that Jesus performed, which could only be done through God. In the same way as the snake was “lifted up” as a “sign” to the people, so Jesus would be “lifted up” at his crucifixion, to the end that all who believe in him might have eternal life.

The passage ends with one of the most familiar verses in the whole of Scripture—John 3:16. What Nicodemus struggles to understand is revealed to us, through the grace of God.

The words “lifted up” describe a cruel and shameful death, but the same word for “lifted up” also means “glorified” or “exalted.” Jesus—the One sent from God—was to be “lifted up” on the cross, but the real meaning for all who believe the seeming impossibility is that he is glorified and exalted. All who believe will not perish but have eternal life.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save the world through him.

So let us rededicate ourselves to live by this truth, come into the light so that others may see that what has been done has been done in the sight of God. What to us seems impossible is not impossible for God.


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